Coming up with a title for a written piece can be challenging. Some titles pop right into your head, while others require a painful process in which you end up settling for something… finally.
Whether the piece is a novel, essay, song or article, achieving the right balance between the theme of the piece, what you want to communicate to the reader, and what the appeals to the sensibilities of your targeted audience, is not easy.
Too obscure, and nobody gets it. Too obvious, and it’s trite. But one thing is certain: if it’s not catchy, it’s also not memorable. Boring bombs and indifference is death.
Finding the right title for my historical fantasy time travel novel, “Rings of Passage,” did not come easily.
My original title was “Battle Against Time.” Too trite. My next idea was “Shakespeare’s Child.” Too obscure. At last, the members of my critique group, who brainstormed with me, came up with “Rings of Passage” as a play on the phrase “Rites of Passage.” We all agreed it was the best of what we’d thought of so far.
The title of my second novel, “Dangerous Reflections” (scheduled for release in January 2015), popped right into my head immediately after coming up with the concept.
That hardly ever happens.
So here are some techniques I use to find just the right title:
Technique #1: Go for the throat. What’s the most obvious prop, character, archetype or theme of the piece? Include that in the title. I wrote an essay about picking up my guitar again, after not playing it for 25 years. It’s a stringed instrument, so I chose to build the title around the word “strings.”
Technique #2: Twist the obvious. Now that you have that one key word, play with it. Search for phrases that are built around that word (idiomsite.com). Find words that rhyme with it. (rhymezone.com). Think of other people’s well-known titles or lyrics that use that word (rockwisdom.com), and twist it slightly so it stirs people’s memories in that direction, yet is somehow slightly “off.”
For the guitar essay, I took the phrase “absence of strings” (meaning “no strings attached”), but slanted its meaning to imply the opposite of the phrase’s original intent. In my case, not playing the guitar had caused a void in my life.
Technique #3: Bend Google to your will. Use the search engine to discover how many other people have already used your idea—but at the same time, to brainstorm alternatives to those overused titles. Suppose you’re toying with a phrase you like, that captures the essence of your work, but has been used to death. Enter part of the phrase into the search engine, except with quote marks around it. (www.google.com/advanced_search)
Using Technique #3 For my guitar essay title, I entered “<space> of strings”—which allowed for a word in front of the phrase.
This filled in the blank (“____ of strings”) with:
As another example, I wanted to add a subtitle to my novel “Dangerous Reflections,” which is a historical fantasy about wizards who travel through mirrors. Using Technique #1, I started building upon the most important device in the novel, a mirror. Using this idea, I quickly came up with “Magic Mirrors” and “Smoke and Mirrors.”
After entering “Magic Mirrors” into the search engine, I immediately discovered this was an overused phrase, and that there was already a fantasy series with that in the title.
I switched to Technique #2. The rhymes for “smoke” produced many results, but they didn’t make sense in context.
But the rhyming word “broke” suggested “broken.” Using the very useful “near rhymes” tool of Rhymezone, this yielded some quirky results:
Perhaps, within other contexts such as poetry, these results would have sparked intriguing possibilities. But they didn’t work for my purpose.
Switching back to Technique #1, I went for a synonym of “mirror.” Thesaurus.com is the go-to website for synonyms, and I use it daily.
With a little brainstorming, I came up with a Biblical phrase from Corinthians (King James Version), “Through a Glass, Darkly.” Many titles have been inspired by it, even a Rolling Stones album, “Through the Past, Darkly.”
Using Rhymezone to rhyme “darkly, “ I found “starkly,” “courtly,” “sharply,” “portly.”
Not quite what I was looking for.
So I went to OneLook, a “dictionary of dictionaries,” and used its “wildcard” function to find words that ending in “ly.” This brought up an overwhelming number of results.
Fortunately, the website gives you the option of narrowing it down to “common words and phrases” and even “part of speech.” I definitely wanted adverbs. This produced an alphabetic list that went on for pages and yielded some possibilities: “blithely,” “boldly,” “timelessly.”
OneLook also offers a key word search of Shakespeare’s works (resulting in this blog post’s title). Or enter a word to “show only matches that are related to this concept.”
I put in the word “light” coupled with the “ly” form, and got some slightly oddball results, including “light-headedly,” sparkly” and “smelly.” Interesting, but definitely no cigar.
So I switched to Technique #3, entering into Google a partial phrase inside of quote marks, “Through a glass” – and in addition to that, outside the quotes, a minus sign (-) in front of the word “darkly” to eliminate matches including that word.
Search hits included “Through a Glass <fill in the blank>”
Onion (thanks to the Beatles)
This exercise helps you eliminate phrases that have become trite, and sparks your own imagination by leveraging from what others came up with to think outside the box.
In the end, I didn’t use the word “mirror” or any variation of “through a glass” as a subtitle for “Dangerous Reflections.” I settled for the more prosaic and Amazon-category-friendly, “A Historical Fantasy through Time.”
Even though I didn’t find my subtitle using these techniques, the exercise wasn’t a bust. It stretched my mind, fueled my creativity, and resulted in several ideas and phrases I can use to market the novel.
5 Easy Tips for Terrific Titles by Anna Guerrero
Idioms and sayings
Dictionaries and word sites
Popular lyrics reference by category
“Rings of Passage” is a time travel historical fantasy, with Richard III as the romantic hero. Wizards control the events of history, but a woman’s love transcends all. Available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.com.